William Faulkner called Mark Twain “the first truly American writer” and said, “All of us since are his heirs.” Twain is often credited with creating an American style of writing. But Twain’s stature as one of the country’s greatest writers was not a given.
“I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.”
In fact, the young Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain was his pen name) had very little formal education. Born in Missouri in 1835, he grew up in the small town of Hannibal on the Mississippi River, where he gained exposure to the social and economic issues of his time. His father owned a few slaves, and his uncle owned several. The young Twain spent many summers on his uncle’s farm, listening to the stories and spirituals told and sung in the slave quarters, establishing his appreciation for African-American rights and culture.
Twain’s boyhood was cut short, however, when his father died in 1847. Completing his education only through the fifth grade, Twain left school to work as a printer’s apprentice, where he arranged type for newspaper stories. The job helped him further his literary education and learn about world events, which would come in handy as he worked at newspapers in Philadelphia and New York, returning in 1857 to become a riverboat pilot on the Mississippi.
“When in doubt, tell the truth.”
In 1861, Twain headed west to earn his fortune in the Nevada silver rush. Failing as a prospector, he went to work for the Territorial Enterprise in Virginia City, Nev., and began using his pen name, “Mark Twain,” a term he borrowed from his riverboat days and which meant “two fathoms.” He experienced his big break in 1865 with the publication of his now famous short story, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.”
The story, which Twain had picked up in the mining camps, launched his career as a humorist, fueling his literary reputation for exaggerated storytelling based on his life experiences and travels. In 1867, a California newspaper hired Twain to write about his travels in Europe and the Holy Land. His irreverent, tongue-in-cheek recounting of his companions’ travels across the Atlantic was ultimately published as The Innocents Abroad in 1869.
“Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great.”
Twain had the good fortune to marry into a well-to-do family, making Olivia Langdon his bride in 1870. The couple settled in Buffalo, New York, and eventually had four children. Twain became a partner of and editor for the Buffalo Express.
Over the course of the next several years, Twain, who was the first American novelist to employ common language in his works, published more books based on his personal experiences and his commentary on post-Civil War America. His co-authored book, The Gilded Age, though not very popular, gave the name to the era of greed and industrialism that characterized America in the latter half of the 19th century.
In 1871, Twain moved his family to Hartford, Conn., where he continued to write and publish for almost 20 years.
His beloved boy’s book, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, was published in 1876, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn followed in 1884. Huckleberry Finn was more than a playful novel, however. In it, Twain attacked the institution of slavery and the failure of Reconstruction to improve the lives of former slaves. He frequently used his common and even lowly characters as commentators on the political and social follies of the day.
“Always do right. That will gratify some of the people, and astonish the rest.”
In Huckleberry Finn, Twain used the evolution of Huck’s character and his relationship with the escaped slave, Jim, to shed light on common prejudices against African-Americans. “When I waked up just at daybreak,” Twain writes in the character of Huck Finn, “he was sitting there with his head down betwixt his knees, moaning and mourning to himself. I didn’t take notice nor let on. I knowed what it was about. He was thinking about his wife and his children, away up yonder, and he was low and homesick; because he hadn’t ever been away from home before in his life; and I do believe he cared just as much for his people as white folks does for their’n.”
While Twain enjoyed great popularity as a writer and lecturer because of his wit and intelligence, he spent the latter portion of his career increasingly focused on social issues. His satirical novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, published in 1889, was a criticism of royalty and religion. In his typical mixture of humor and political commentary, Twain wrote, “A jackass has that kind of strength and puts it to a useful purpose and is valuable to the world because he is a jackass; but a nobleman is not valuable because he is a jackass. It is a mixture that is always ineffectual and should never have been attempted in the first place.”
Twain was an active critic of American and European imperialism and served as vice president of the American Congo Reform Association, using his fame as an author to draw attention to the impact of imperialism on native people in the Philippines, Africa and China.
“Twenty years from now, you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do.”
Though Twain enjoyed a great deal of professional and financial success, a series of bad investments led him to bankruptcy, and in 1894, his publishing company failed. To pay off his debts, Twain and his family went on a worldwide lecture tour. His travels made him even more critical of Western powers’ domination of weaker nations, something he wrote about in Following the Equator, published in 1897.
By the end of his life, Twain’s literary style was less about poking fun at hypocrisy and became more direct and embittered. Just as his writings had been influenced by his life and observations of the world around him, so did his own philosophies shift with the deaths of three of his children and his beloved wife.
“Let us endeavor so to live that when we come to die even the undertaker will be sorry.”
When he died in 1910, Twain had already established himself as one of America’s literary greats, and his influence has been far-reaching. His use of the vernacular, movement away from more formal literary traditions and criticism of society in his writings all foreshadowed the modern era that would follow. Writers from Ernest Hemingway to Norman Mailer considered Twain their literary forefather.
“I believe that Mark Twain had a clearer vision of life, that he came nearer to its elementals and was less deceived by its false appearances than any other American who has ever presumed to manufacture generalizations,” wrote H.L. Mencken. “I believe that he was the true father of our national literature.”